Faculty Scholarly Dissemination Grants


Landscape, Narrative, and Culture as Objects of Sustainability


Philosophy Department


College of Liberal Arts and Sciences

Date Range



Social and Behavioral Sciences


Environmental pragmatism proposes sustainability as the key normative term in environmental ethics. With its reference to future-oriented criteria that are in principle measurable and predictable, sustainability appears to many pragmatists to be a promising basis for addressing difficult questions in both environmental ethics and public policy. At the same time, many consider sustainability to be an "essentially contested concept," and the problem of achieving sustainability in any complex situation to be a "wicked problem": there is probably an inescapable pluralism of legitimate meanings and implications of sustainability, which vary with the context in which the concept is used. In some cases the term "sustainable" appears to be nearly devoid of any specific meaning (functioning merely as a green synonym for "good") (Thompson, 8); in other cases, the specific meanings assigned to the term by different parties conflict or even contradict one another. Thus while nearly everyone would probably agree that sustainability is a good thing in abstraction, their differing assumptions and interests mean it may be difficult to reach consensus on the question of what exactly ought to be sustained in particular cases. This paper proposes a pragmatist deliberative framework that allows for a plurality of agents, meanings, and plans for sustainability to be discussed and considered in light of three common framing concepts: culture, landscape, and narrative. The first part of the paper outlines the problems of fixing a common understanding of sustainability. Definitions will vary depending on which temporal and spatial boundaries one imposes on a sustainability problem, and on what kind of measures one assumes will reflect success at solving that problem. Sustainability is an inherently normative concept: assumed aesthetic and social values determine where the definitional lines of sustainability are drawn. The second part of the paper examines a somewhat typical sustainability case study-the choice whether to preserve or to build condominiums on a large parcel of Lake Michigan dunelands-in order to illustrate ways that the contested, pluralistic nature of the concept of sustainability can be both an advantage and an obstacle in reaching policy decisions. The third section of the paper takes up Bryan Norton's account of sustainability as the basis for environmental ethics and public policy discussions. Norton's sustainability principle "asserts that each generation has an obligation to protect productive ecological and physical processes necessary to support options necessary for future human freedom and welfare" (Norton, "Integration or Reduction," 122). His account of community-based adaptive ecosystem management, exemplified in a long-term project to establish new policies to save the Chesapeake Bay (Norton, Sustainability, 433-36), provides a model of how locally appropriate measures of sustainability can be identified in specific cases. In Norton's case study, "bay water clarity" emerged as a common, accessible, comprehensible indicator of progress toward a shared ideal which itself encompassed a wide plurality of environmental values. It is possible to generalize specific measures of sustainability such as "bay water clarity," and to further generalize the principle that we are to sustain "options necessary for future human freedom and welfare"-which are commonly addressed in terms of the "triple bottom line" of economics, environment, and social justice. The components of the triple bottom line might all be seen as components of "culture" (in the same sense that informed Dewey's reflection that he ought to have titled his key 1925 book Culture and Nature). I argue that what we ultimately seek to sustain in the triple bottom line are places or landscapes, including ways and conceptions of human life, and the narratives that define them. A concluding section sketches how the common framing concepts of culture, landscape, and narrative allow us to understand the dunes preservation debate in the case study not as a clash of two incommensurable positions, but rather as a public deliberation over regional culture, the intersection of lifeways and land that constitute the landscape, and the choice of a social narrative that will define the place and people. References Dewey, John. Experience and Nature. The Later Works: 1925-1953, vol. 1. Ed. Jo Ann Boydston. Southern Illinois University Press, 2008. Print. Norton, Bryan. "Integration or Reduction? Two Approaches to Environmental Values." Environmental Pragmatism. New York: Routledge, 1996. Print. ---. Sustainability: A Philosophy of Adaptive Ecosystem Management. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005. Print. Thompson, Paul B. "Agricultural Sustainability: What It Is and What It Is Not." International Journal of Agricultural Sustainability 5.1 (2007): 5-16. Print

Conference Name

Annual Meeting

Conference Location

Denver, CO

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